A series of unexplained fires including the blaze that destroyed the Russian River Health Center are expected to attract a big turnout of River residents at a Guerneville town meeting next Monday.
The Jan. 11 meeting is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. in the Guerneville School all-purpose room and will bring in 5th District Sonoma County Supervisor Efren Carrillo, Sonoma County Sheriff Steve Freitas and Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch to meet with River residents concerning the fires, homeless issues and a sentiment in Guerneville that no one seems to be in charge.
“We think we’re going to need a bigger venue than the Vets Hall,” said Guerneville Chamber of Commerce President Debra Johnson, who was helping get the meeting site nailed down this week. The Vets Hall is usually the Guerneville town meeting place but is now occupied by the nightly winter homeless shelter.
Representatives of non-profits including West County Community Services, the West County Health Centers and Vet Connect, who are all advocating for more homeless services and housing, are also expected to be on hand Monday for the first town gathering since the River Health Center burned in the early morning fire on Dec. 26.
The fire was deliberately started, say investigators, but no report has been issued yet on who may have started the fire or why. Five other fires in the past weeks have also fueled worries that Guerneville has an arsonist at large.
Homeless advocates say it’s unfair to pin any blame on homeless residents, especially those who frequent the Third Street area where the Russian River Health Center clinic has operated for approximately 30 years.
Homeless advocates have also cautioned against scapegoating the town’s homeless population in general, some who are Health Center patients.
“The homeless are really distraught,” said Cheryl Bonacorso, patient navigator and a homeless services coordinator with the West County Health Centers.
“They think they’re getting blamed for the health center fire,” said Bonacorso. “They’re scared.”
Besides the health center conflagration that started about 2:30 a.m. on Dec. 26, six other fires in recent weeks include a suspicious blaze at Monte Rio’s St. Catherine’s Catholic church, a fire at the River Counselors office in Northwood, a vacation house that burned down on Old Monte Rio Road another vacation house that burned to the ground on Morningside Drive and two fires on Mill Street in Guerneville, one at a house and the other at the former New Dynamic Inn, a multi-unit building that was being renovated for homeless supportive housing. (A seventh fire occurred this week in Monte Rio where a house burned on Tyrone Road.
Among many opinions in town is one speculation the health center and the New Dynamic Inn fires may have been started by someone targeting facilities that support the homeless.
Two of the fires, the vacation house on Old Monte Rio Road and the residence on Mill Street were accidentally caused by electrical appliances, according to reports. The Morningside Drive fire’s origin is still undetermined. The River Health Center, New Dynamic Inn and St. Catherine’s fires remain under investigation by the Russian River Fire Protection District, Calfire, the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Department the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the Sonoma County Fire Investigation Task Force, said Russian River Protection District Chief Max Ming.
“It could be awhile,” before those investigations are concluded, said Ming.